Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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Grade: ΩAn excellent book that may appeal more to people who do not normally read the genre than those who are aficionados of it.   

In brief:

This award winning best-seller breaks the mold of modern fantasy. It is a mock history of an alternate Georgian England where magic exists, and indeed re-emerges through the course of the tale.  It is a brilliantly told tale that perfectly mimics the stylistic nature of the histories of that period and incorporates a magic system that also matches Georgian concepts of faeries and the supernatural.  The language may put off those who want a tale told in modern style, but for me is the best part of the whole book and what makes it stand apart.


England (and other bits of the world), 1806 to 1817

In Depth:

At the end of the Enlightenment, numerous ‘Magical’ societies exist amongst the intellectuals and clergy of middle England,[i] but none of them actually practice magic.  Instead, they focus on the historical and philosophical elements of such thaumaturgy. Then, in one of the rural societies an odd little man called Mr. Norrell turns up who declares that he actually practices spell casting and notes his desire to return it to the center of such local studies. 

Initially rejected by these societies, Mr. Norrell goes into Georgian society and begins to practice his magical arts.  Before long, he attracts the attention of upper class society and before long a young protégée appears.[ii]  Eventually, philosophical differences develop between the two and conflict arises as each becomes more entrenched in their own views.

Having read hundreds of local histories (literally) of this period, I found this book a delightful, amusing and refreshing read.  The footnotes are particularly amusing, and are as important to the plot as the main text.  Indeed, many of them stand as a short story in their own right.  The tale is filled with elements of magic appropriate to the early 19th century, including a concept of elves and faeries that matches the dark views of the supernatural world that predate Tolkienism, Disneyesque sanitization, and New Age PC fairy tales.

You’ll see no Legolas or Fairy Godmothers here, but you will see a wonderful and historically more appropriate concept of magic.  You will also see a wonderful story told in an imaginative and exciting way. 

[i] Intellectual societies were very common in Britain and the continent at the time, and ranged in interest in everything from arts, archaeology, antiquarianism, biology, literature, astronomy, and other emerging sciences and studies.  They were normally populated with middle class or lower upper class individuals, frequently of a clerical bent, who were, or at least viewed themselves as intellectuals. 

[ii] The eponymous Jonathan Strange, a bright young man of a socially superior class who none-the-less throws himself into the study of magic, faeries and the supernatural.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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11 Responses to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury Publishing)

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    My sister LOVED this book!

    My favorite fantasy writer alive at the moment has to be Jeff VanderMeer. Have you heard of him? Shriek: An Afterword is a stunning work (also, his short story, encyclopedia entry, travel brochure, and fragmented text collection about his amazing city Ambergris ‘City of Saints and Madmen’ is brilliant as well).

  2. readysetpitch says:

    I have tried, oh how I have tried to make it through this book, but alas, no such luck. I get to page 50 and I’m done.

    The attention span of a 12 year-old? Probably. Sigh…I guess no big-girl books for me.

    Back to Dr. Seuss.

    • Thomas Evans says:


      Pup on Cup…

      That is why I gave it an Omega grade. This story is brilliant, but not for everyone. I loved it, and it won some major awards, but it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea. I think it helps if you remember its supposed to be funny, but I put it up there with Foucaults Pendulum. Wonderful, but not for everyone.

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Yeah, it won a Hugo…

    • Thomas Evans says:

      And the British Book Awards… though what got me to read it was when it was Short listed for the Whitbreads. I have enjoyed every book I’ve ever read that was shortlisted on the Whitbread. m

  4. Joachim Boaz says:

    i think it took her 15 or so years to write…

  5. Joachim Boaz says:

    Oh, I haven’t read the first one. My sister told me all about it and I looked it up…

  6. Are you planning on reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu any time soon?

    This was absolutely fantastic, and I think we can argue that it started the current mania for that tiny subgenre known as Regency fantasy–or, at the very least, it’s the most visible milestone to mark as its beginning. The beginning can be a bit slow, I find, though, although it’s certainly worth it.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      It’s on my list, but maybe I’ll move it up to the top. It sounds very interesting and I did love JS&MrN.

      SPeaking of Regency Fantasy, have you read “Shades of Milk and Honey” by Mary Robinette Kowal? I’ve just started it and am quite impressed thus far.

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